Laura Harden describes herself as a beginner quilter. This year she became a Massdrop customer for the first time. “I wasn’t planning on shopping with Massdrop,” she says. “I gave them my email address while at Quilt Con. Didn’t think anything of it. I started receiving emails and these emails were introducing me to products (tools and fabrics) that I had never seen before.” As a novice Harden wasn’t sure which of these items was worth buying, but when she clicked over to the Massdrop site the input from the community helped her figure out what to get.
“There are so many different tools and widgets available to quilters. It can be overwhelming,” she says. “Votes from other quilters act as an endorsement of a product (to a beginner).”
Launched in 2012, Massdrop describes its mission as providing “community-driven commerce.” Users gather in 14 different communities of common interest, such as photography, audiophile, men’s style, tech, and quilting, and suggest products they’re interested in. If enough people want the same product, Massdrop will reach out to the manufacturer to negotiate a price, often securing a bulk discount. They then open up a “drop” giving people a 7-10 days to buy in.
Some prices on Massdrop are significantly lower than MSRP, but others aren’t. At the time of publication there were 12 drops going in the quilting community. One is for a Janome Derby sewing machine for $69.99, the same price available on Amazon and at Wal-Mart. Another is for an Oliso TG1100 iron at $119 on Massdrop and $149 on Amazon and at Joann’s. The Sew Sassy thread set from Superior Threads is offered at $49.99 on Massdrop, whereas the same product retails on the Superior Threads website for $221.50.
To date Massdrop has raised $48 million in venture capital. The company currently has 100 employees. Quilting launched as a community on the site in 2014 with a Liberty ten print bundle. It’s one of the smallest and the only one specifically geared towards women.
For Harden Massdrop’s daily deal email marketing strategy was highly effective. “Having one or two of these items (not overwhelming) elegantly presented to me in an email each week. This was the hook, for me,” she recalls.
Quilter and web developer Sarah Bailey feels the same way. “I like that they introduce me to new fun things I might not have known about otherwise. I always look at the daily new products email,” she says.
Shopping on Massdrop involves a longer wait time then shopping at regular online or in-person shop. Once a “drop” closes the fulfillment time ranges from 1-4 weeks. Deborah Chang, Vice President for Business Development and Partnerships at Massdrop, says people are willing to wait because “they’re in a community, together, and they want and need things as a group.” She also feels that “people like when a company is paying attention to them, when they feel the company is listening” and the Massdrop experience gives them that feeling.
For Harden Massdrop doesn’t replace shopping locally, it just provides a different kind of retail experience. “I do also shop in my local quilt shops but most of the fabric and tools from Massdrop were brand new to me. Either I didn’t know ‘what’ to look for or I couldn’t find these items, possibly they were unavailable. Some of my purchases were impulse buys. Fabrics that I had never seen before and had an ‘ooooh’ moment.”
Chang says Massdrop is cultivating a young, tech savvy customer and introducing them to quilting. Overtime this customer will likely spend money elsewhere as well.
“What we have done is cater to a community of younger quilters, people between the ages of 20 and 35, by offering an accessible online platform where enthusiasts can exchange ideas, trade tips, and purchase their favorite products—all in one place,” Chang says. “And by catering to millennials, we feel we’ve lifted the quilting community as a whole.”
Many Massdrop customers use the site to find unusual products that aren’t available locally. Trinia Braughton says she’s been sewing for over 30 years and spends $50-100 in any given month on quilting and sewing supplies. “I make it a point to visit local quilt shops in any area I travel or live,” she says. “I have participated in many quilt shop hops and I will buy from local shops when I see something that fits my aesthetic.”
She’s also a Massdrop customer.
Braughton has participated in two drops on Massdrop. “The first was a bundle of First of Infinity Panels by Kumiko Fujita in 2015. This purchase was for something I could not get in a local quilt shop and had difficulty finding in stock in an online shop,” she explains.
Recent item for sale in the quilting community on Massdrop.
Photo courtesy of Massdrop
“Our aim isn’t to carry everything. We’ll never be like Amazon with quick turnaround,” Deborah Chang adds.
“The second was for Schmetz Microtex Needles box of 100. I went in on this drop with a few friends. I purchased three boxes of needles in three different sizes that three of us are going to share. This gives us each a selection of our most used needles at a low cost. While I saved a little money with these drops it was not considerable. The benefit of the first drop was getting all 13 panels from the collection. The second dropped saved a little money because we were able to buy in bulk.”
For years group buying clubs, or coops, have existed online among quilters, first as Yahoo groups and now as Facebook groups. Members pool their money, purchase supplies wholesale, and then divvy them up. Some shop owners feel these groups are undercutting their businesses. To them Massdrop feels like a well-organized, well-funded coop.
In fact, that’s what Steve El-Hage, Massdrop’s founder, had in mind when formed the company. After noticing that online groups were making group buys but struggling to keep them organized, he had the idea to formalize the process in a central place that would be easy to keep track of and more social.
Of course offering products to consumers at wholesale prices can cause problems for manufacturers. El-Hage told the publication First Round Review how he’s worked around this.
“When we were first talking to vendors, the most common question we got was about privacy. Many of them didn’t want people to see that they were offering the same products for different prices on Massdrop than on other sites,” said Steve El-Hage.
“It was the number one reason suppliers didn’t want to work with us. Fewer vendors meant fewer products available to our consumers and that was a serious problem,” he said. Because Massdrop’s success is dependent on having access to the best products, El-Hage was willing to do what it took to get them onboard.
To address these concerns Massdrop made two significant decisions about how the site would operate. Visitors to the site can’t see what’s for sale without first setting up an account and logging in. And Massdrop de-indexed its product pages from Google. The result was a significant reduction in traffic to the site, but for Massdrop these decisions were key to making the business model work.
“We called the last five vendors that had rejected us and told them we were going to build a signup flow,” El-Hage told First Round Review. “All five switched to yes immediately, and we could reasonably assume others would feel the same way…we told our vendors, ‘Look, we removed everything from Google for you. We really care,’” El-Hage said.
For Brenda Ratliff, owner of Pink Castle Fabrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan, competitive pricing on fabric is an issue she’s facing from many sources, Massdrop being just one. “I think the part that hurts the local shops is when the bigger stores sell at wildly low prices. It makes the smaller guys have to work just a little bit harder for the dollar. For example, if I buy a fat quarter bundle from a fabric company for $25 and sell at $50. Massdrop will sell at $35 (or whatever). You as the consumer will gravitate to that cheaper price.”
Ratliff goes on to explain, “Fabric prices have gone up for shops, they have been inching up slowly over the past few years, but I don’t feel that I can raise my prices because I have to compete with ‘deals’ and small Etsy shops that have no overhead and can sell for less.”
Chang emphasizes that Massdrop’s goal isn’t to replace local shops, though. “We don’t aim to be—or compete with—full-service quilt shops. After all, there’s no substitute for going into a shop, touching the product, talking face to face with a fellow enthusiast, and purchasing something on the spot,” she says. “Nor are our prices any lower than sale prices at your local quilt shop.”